by Matthew W. Bassford
When visitors from denominational backgrounds come to our assemblies, they are often puzzled by our tradition of a-cappella singing. “Why don’t they use instruments?” they wonder. If we explain that the Scriptures do not authorize the use of instruments in worship, they may be Biblically savvy enough to point to passages, usually from the Psalms, that contain commands to worship God with instrumental music. Psalm 150:3-5 is the most prominent such passage, but there are others.
However, there’s a significant problem with assuming that what God bound on the ancient Jews is still binding on us today. They served Him under a different law than we do. They were bound by covenant to obey the Law of Moses, but we follow the law of Christ.
There are a number of passages in Scripture that make this point, but perhaps the clearest of them all is Galatians 3:24-25. In this text, Paul compares the Law to a guardian. Other translations here will say “schoolmaster” or “tutor”. Colloquially, the English word that best captures the sense of the Greek original (paidagōgos) may be “crossing guard” — somebody whose job it is to make sure that a student arrives safely at school.
However, just as the guardian’s authority terminated when the student reached his destination, Paul reveals that the authority of the Law has ceased now that faith in Christ has arrived. He tells the Galatians, “We are no longer under a guardian.”
In context, Paul is particularly concerned with the Mosaic rite of circumcision, but his words have a much broader reach than that. Some denominational commentators will attempt to divide the Law into two parts: the ceremonial Law, which was nailed to the cross, and the moral Law, which continues. This distinction was originally proposed by the Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas about 1000 years ago.
Aside from the difficulty of applying this scheme (Is tithing part of the ceremonial Law or the moral Law?), I’ve never been able to find any Scriptural justification for it. Rather, we should take Paul at his word. Nothing in the Law of Moses continues in effect.
This does not mean that the Old Testament is valueless. It gives us precious insight into the prophecies concerning Jesus, the nature of God, and the application of moral precepts that are repeated in the ordinances that govern us. However, for a law to fall into that category, it must have been repeated by Jesus or His apostles and prophets as a rule for Christians to follow.
Thus, when it comes to instruments of music in Psalm 150, we must acknowledge that even though the psalm contains a stirring call to worship, those verses have nothing to do with us. The only instrument authorized by the New Testament, according to Ephesians 5:19, is the instrument that we all must play when we worship — the heart.